THE BLOG
10/29/2016 07:00 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2017

First Nighter: Kenneth Branagh in John Osborne's "The Entertainer," Kemp Powers's Thrilling "One Night in Miami...," Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus" Undone," "How to Hide a Lion" for Kids

London--Comparisons might be odious, but Kenneth Branagh invites them. Over several decades he's assumed classic roles associated with Laurence Olivier. His Henry V and Hamlet were unquestionably Olivier-worthy. Now, however, he's playing Archie Rice (for another two weeks) in John Osborne's The Entertainer, at the Garrick and as the conclusion to his Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company year.

It could be argued that Archie Rice was the great performance of Olivier's later career. I'd certainly make that argument vigorously. As the aging music hall performer, Olivier--frequently at his best when playing a ham (watch him in Sleuth, for instance--pulled out every last stop. His Archie Rice was someone far past his prime, a prime that probably was not much of a prime anyway. His on-setting desperation was visible in the song-and-dance routine that began the play.

Branagh starts with a deft tap routine executed in Neil Austin's hazy lighting and augmented by four dancing cuties. Immediately, Archie Rice's cheap turn, as Osborne plants it, is fudged. That's the start of director Rob Ashford's undercutting the playwright's music-hall metaphor--of the fading post-World War II music hall as a metaphor for the United Kingdom's post-war fade.

Yes, it looks as if Ashford, who started his career as a choreographer, is the explanation for this misguided look at The Entertainer, although since Branagh and he have been a team for a while now, Branagh can surely be assumed to be in agreement with all decisions made. (Chris Bailey and Pip Jordan are credited as, respectively choreographer and associate choreographer of the numbers.)

Osborne alternates the song-and-dance turns (Branagh has a strong voice, though he's not always pitch-perfect, perhaps deliberately) with Archie at home alongside his accommodating wife Phoebe (Greta Scacchi, very effective), father Billy Rice (Gawn Grainger, still an on-stage powerhouse), son Frank (Jonah Hauer-King) and nubile Jean Rice (Sophie McShera) for whom Archie makes a baleful play.

Somehow, these sequences seem diluted as well, the view of a troubled England surprisingly pallid. Perhaps 60 years on, Osborne's script is partially responsible for the lack of urgency. Nevertheless, the overall result is disappointing.

What's no letdown is Christopher Oram's set which melds the music hall with the Rice home so that at no time is Archie's squalid professional life absent from the mundane family activity.
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Kemp Powers's One Night in Miami... has already played Baltimore, Denver and Los Angeles, but it may be the sold-out Donmar Warehouse entry, directed by Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armeh, that guarantees Manhattan and across-the-land sightings.

It's 1963 and Cassius Clay (Sope Dirisu) has just defeated Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title. He's returned to his hotel room to celebrate with good pals Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene), Jim Brown (David Ajala) and Malcolm X (Francois Battiste), while Nation of Islam guards Kareem (Dwane Walcott) and Jamaal (Josh Williams) keep watch in the corridor.

Don't look here for confirmation of the personnel present on that historic evening. Just know that Kemp has assembled four men important to the black community. They're men whose disparate attitudes have the capacity to influence a wide population.

Malcolm X is among them because the following morning Clay will announce he's becoming a Muslim and henceforth will be known at Muhammad Ali. How that goes down with the others is the thrust of Powers's powerful 90-minute drama. For instance, Brown, who's just made his first movie, won't convert, since that would mean giving up his grandmother's pork chops.

While the men wrangle over their different positions, perhaps the crucial entanglement is between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke. The former, who just then happens to be out of favor with the Nation of Islam, believes the latter could be doing more for his people than writing benign love songs, and in the heated discussion that follows Cooke singing "You Send Me" and "A Change is Going to Come" earns whopping audience approval.

Before the 90-minute play ends, Powers has delivered a subtle lecture on racial intolerance that existed then and still does today--as, at a crucial moment, a projected image of Donald J. Trump attests.
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At first it might seem as if director Michael Longhurst has decided to deconstruct Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, at the National's Olivier, where it started in 1979. To play the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart music mentioned throughout the script, he dispatches 20 members of the Southbank Sinfonia all over the expansive stage.

The idea is that whenever Antonio Salieri (Lucian Msamati) hears Mozart in his head as he reads the scores, the audience gets to hear it played right there in front of them. Poor Salieri. Even while he remains the acknowledged musical genius of the world ruled by Joseph II (Tom Edden), very imperious), he has to admit to himself that it's younger cut-up Mozart (Adam Gillen) who will live in perpetuity.

Up to the point where Salieri hears his first Mozart serenade, Longhurst's approach seems big but not overblown. Salieri's response to what he experiences as exquisite physical pain does capture something rarely articulated about the effect of great music.

But later Longhurst feels the need to build on Salieri's reactions to the scores as he peruses them, and that's where the production goes wildly wrong. To end the first act Shaffer provides a scene in which Salieri, already considering himself the apex of mediocrity, scans several sheets of music and realizes that, though he's conscientiously devoted himself to his writing, he's woefully deficient when compared to the young whippersnapper, and his attempts to ruin Mozart's life ultimately disastrous..

The carrying-on that Longhurst has Msamati go through is unconscionable--such breast-beating and flailing and sobbing and collapsing. Surely, this is not what Shaffer, who died this year at 90, had in mind. These tortured shenanigans are hardly a tribute to him. Nor is Gillan's outlandish performance, contorting himself as he constantly does, at one point hanging upside down from the piano frequently rolled on and off Chloe Lamford's striking, hulking steel-grey set.

The result is that what initially looks to be a deconstruction is more a con and a destruction. Where what the subtle Amadeus requires in direction is a Mozart counterpart, what it receives is a Salieri treatment.
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If you're in town with young children, you might enjoy tripping to Wimbledon and the 40-year-old Polka Theatre where director-adapter Peter Glanville, composer Barb Jungr and puppet designer Samuel Wyer have turned Helen Stephens's How to Hide a Lion into a charming, slyly instructive 40-minute musical.